Male Gaze #2: the impact of cinema

July 6, 2022

Collage with photos of American actors who played lead roles in Hitchcock’s films. L-R: Grace Kelly 1955, Sterling Publications, Wikimedia Commons. Janet Leigh publicity 1950, Wikimedia Commons. Tippi Hedren, in “Marnie” trailer, 1964, Wikimedia Commons. Eva Marie Saint studio publicity 1950s, Wikimedia Commons and Kim Novack 1950, photo from Laura Loveday on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0.

Phoebe Case explores the history of sexual objectification in film and its negative effect on young women’s development

Coined in 1975 by British film theorist Laura Mulvey, the Male Gaze theory highlights the sexual objectification of women in the media.

Mulvey states that “the gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.” In most films men are the target viewing audience, where their needs are put first, creating idealised and unrealistic versions of women. This can lead to unhealthy expectations in everyday relationships.

Male Gaze in action
Alfred Hitchcock is a master of the male gaze, perpetuated by his exclusive use of blonde actresses. Hitchcock stated he preferred blondes because they were less suspicious than brunettes. The Hitchcock blonde character was created with a cool and calm exterior as well as being bold and passionate in times of danger.

The men in his films, who were often physically or psychologically disabled, became mesmerised and infatuated by these desirable women. Hitchcock remarked that the appeal of the blonde was their restrained sensuality, lurking under their polished and coiffed facades.

Critically Hitchcock perpetuated the ideal that a woman’s worth is based on her looks. He promoted a damaging Eurocentric beauty ideal, with blue eyes, fair skin and blonde hair.

Ultimately, the Blonde in Hitchcock’s films exist to be an aspiration for women and an unattainable fantasy for men

This beauty ideal is particularly harmful when considering the international reach his films had. Ultimately, the Blonde exists to be an aspiration for women and an unattainable fantasy for men.

In more modern times the male gaze has continued to dominate film and media. The male gaze in the 21st century is best encapsulated by the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ (MPDG) trope, coined by Nathan Rabin in 2007. It must be noted that the incessant use of the MPDG trope to describe female characters is reductive and sexist when not applied to a specific and nuanced character.

The MPDG character is always played alongside the cynical, soulful, brooding male protagonist. She exists solely to change and improve the man’s life by being stunningly attractive, energetic, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies. She has a childlike sense of playfulness, while being effortlessly beautiful and often having a quirky and definitive look. The MPDG loves life almost as much as she loves her man.

500 Days of Summer is a prime example of the MPDG trope. The film is an offbeat love story about Tom (our brooding and soulful protagonist played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (our upbeat and whimsical love interest played by Zooey Deschanel).

The fresh indie film released in 2009 fails to give Summer a developed backstory and she has little dialogue. Summer only exists in the psychological space of Tom’s mind. She changes Tom’s life forever and, once their relationship meets its demise, Summer ceases to exist in the film.

As a society we demand more from women than we do of men which is articulated by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope

Summer gives Tom a new lease of life and after the end of their relationship, Tom’s newfound confidence leads him to build another relationship. The MPDG trope has a maternal feel to it and takes accountability away from men. These women are expected to coddle and help men while getting nothing in return.

Mistakes made by the soulful male are cleaned up and blamed on the MPDG. This idea is best summed up by media critic, Anita Sarkeesian who argues that the MPDG character, “is problematic because she perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers at our very core”; her main role is to “fix these lonely sad men, so that they can go fix the world.”

As a society we demand more from women than we do of men which is articulated by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

“The consequences of the sexualization of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development,” says Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

If you are affected by any of the issues explored you can get support from: SafeLives, which is operating the, Your Best Friend Fund – The #FriendsCanTell campaign – to educate and empower young people to spot abuse in relationships and support their friends.

Many thanks for making this project possible!

Phoebe is studying Politics, History and Classics. She is passionate about political and social issues, like the impact of class on society, feminism and how they interact with capitalism. In her free time, Phoebe likes to read, watch films, spend time with friends and family and walk her dog, Luna.

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